French Open Preview: Abrams asks 'Can anyone beat Rafael Nadal?' Djokovic, Zverev, Thiem, Rublev are all no's
There are only six men who can win this year’s French Open, and anyone besides Spain’s Rafael Nadal would be a surprise. Nadal will be seeking his mind-numbing 14th Roland Garros title, and the five guys who will chase him include last year’s runner-up, world #1 Novak Djokovic, Next-Genners Dominic Thiem (4), this year’s U.S. Open Champ and the runner-up in Paris two out of the past three years, and fifth-ranked Greek threat Stephanos Tsitsipas, six-ranked German Alex Zverev, and Russian Andrey Rublev (7). Would it shock me if anyone beat Rafa? Absolutely. But if anyone can, it will come from this group and this group alone.
Roger Federer, the Living Legend, is entered, but he hasn’t played a tournament in so long that his ranking has slipped to #8, as tournament ranking points disappear off the rolling calendar record like icicles melting in Spring. Besides, Roger will be 40 in early August, is coming back not only from a lengthy layoff of over a year, but from a surgically repaired knee. Additionally, Fed rarely wins on clay, especially when Rafa is in the draw, and it won’t help either his confidence or his chances that he lost his very first match back on May 18 to 35-year-old Spaniard Pablo Andujar, who is ranked just No. 75. To expect him to win the French by outclassing Rafa in his first big tournament back is delusional.
Top-ranked Djokovic can never be discounted. He was runner-up in Paris last year in addition to three other times, and although he’ll be the second seed in Paris, if he reaches the Finals that would mean that he would have had to work through some combination of Tsitsipas, Zverev, Thiem, Federer, Rublev, and/or second ranked Russian Daniil Medvedev. It’s possible, but a damn tall order for a guy who is basically a world-class defender.
Speaking of the world No. 2, Medvedev has absolutely no chance, as he rarely wins matches on clay, let alone tournaments. But his compatriot Rublev could surprise and upset some higher seeds, as mentioned above, as can other Russians Aslan Karatsev (25) and Karen Khachanov (26). In fact, speaking Russian in Paris this year might be an advantage.
There are also two of three Canadians who are dangerous, so if you're American you will have a few North Americans to root for. Denis Shapovalov (15) is a hell raiser, fights like a dog, has the game to beat absolutely everyone in the draw, and if you watch him play you will become a fan. No. 19 Felix Auger-Aliassime is also very dangerous and could surprise anyone and is due for a good showing, but 16th-ranked Milos Raonic has a game that makes him a contender on fast courts only. He poses no threat in the City of Light.
Can Spaniards other than Rafa win? Well, it’s really a question of semantics. There are a plethora of Spaniards who are wonderful players and can threaten. But to win this clay court marathon over a full fortnight takes more than just talent. It takes desire, some luck, a wonderful athlete in great shape, and someone who is as dogged and determined as Rafa, and who can transform that determination into an almost unhealthy form of competitiveness. So it might be worth watching Roberto Bautista Agut (11), Pablo Carreno Busta (12), or even Albert Ramos-Vinolas (39), and maybe some of their lower ranked brethren, but to expect any of them to raise the trophy after two weeks is an incredible long-shot.
No American can challenge for the title, as there is, for the first time in the Open Era (beginning in1968) no American ranked in the world Top 30. But a few who are worth watching if you like tennis include Taylor Fritz (32) and Seb Korda (65). If you’re really hard up for American players, Tommy Paul (53) and John Isner (34) will also be in the draw, and I’m curious how newcomer J.J. Wolf (147) can compete on the slow clay of Paris, as his game is really designed for any other surface.
So who does that leave that has a chance to surprise? Italian Matteo Berrettini (9) and Argentinean Diego Schwartzman (10) are good players . . . but don’t have the game to challenge here. Same for David Goffin (13) and Casper Ruud (21), although Ruud is an up-and-comer and may make a splash when the Big Three retire. Italian Jannik Sinner (17) can be penciled in as a future champion, but with the Big Three and the Four Next-Genners playing, that could be four years away. Stan Wawrinka (24) has won this tournament before, but he’s 36 now, and his game has seen better days. Italian Lorenzo Sonego (28) looked great last week in Rome, and compatriot Fabio Fognini (29) can beat anyone when he’s head is screwed on right and he plays with confidence. The problem is that Sonego can’t win and Fognini won’t.
If I had to pick one player and one player only to challenge Rafa it would be Alex (“don’t call me Sasha”) Zverev. He’s been playing some top notch tennis, had beaten Rafa three straight times before the Majorcan finally gave him a straight set beating last week in Rome—reversing the outcome of the week before when the German beat Rafa in straight sets in Madrid, and has the game to beat all comers. What keeps me from picking Zverev is that he is inconsistent enough that you never know what you’re going to get from the 6’6” 23-year old. Just this inconsistency keeps him and many of his brethren from knocking on the door of the Big Three. He’s got the game to win this tournament, and I believe he has the best chance out of the five contenders I’ve identified as real challengers to add a Grand Slam title to his resume now. But realistically, his time hasn’t quite come.
A day will come when Rafa doesn’t win the French. But that day is at least a year away.